Freedom and Photography: Paris / by M Durquet

"liberté égalité fraternité, hiru gezur horiek egiak balite" (si ces trois mensonges étaient des vérités!)

This is a Basque saying regarding the motto of France (and of Haiti). “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, if only those three lies were truths!”

When I was last in Paris, I showed a friend a photo I had just taken of lovers kissing at a café.  I didn’t get the shot I had hoped for, which was when the woman was still walking towards the man. I had stepped into the middle of the street, almost getting hit by a car, while trying to not be noticed.  My friend’s reaction was horror- I had no right to photograph people in public, he said. What if the man was cheating on his wife? I could ruin an entire marriage. They have laws about this in France, he tells me.  I have since learned that the punishment is 1 year imprisonment and 45,000 Euros.

I ponder the irony that such laws exist in the country where Daguerre gave to the world the first photograph of a person (actually 2 people), on the Boulevard du Temple. Paris is the city where streets and tramway stations are named after photographers- Lartigue, Atget, Daguerre and Niepce, but also George Eastman in the 13th arrondissement. There is even a garden named after Brassai near the Corvisart Metro stop.
Rue Georges Eastman, Philantrope. Inventeur de la pelicule photographique
Leaving the Square Brassai
Imagine if we didn’t have the photographs of Doisneau, Cartier-Bresson, and Kertesz, all of whom photographed lovers kissing (this is the subject of another post).

Relating to Article 9 of the French civil code, a person’s private life includes his or her love life, friendships, family circumstances, leisure activities, political opinions, and many other things. Articles 226-1 to 226-9 of the new Penal Code add that taking a person’s picture, whether the person is living or dead, is prohibited without prior permission, since the protection of privacy extends beyond death. People have taken various positions regarding the interpretation of these laws (see the links below), and I am not claiming to understand them correctly. I just know that it makes it less fun to take pictures. I have been told by a French journalist that I have the right to photograph three or more houses from across a street, but not one house by itself, and that I cannot set up a tripod at the Jardin des Tuileries, nor take photos of the Eiffel Tower at certain times when lights are on. So I wonder why I am seeing photos by Bruce Gilden plastered all over the Paris metro stations, photos of Parisians rushing by on the street, who were clearly not giving their permission. Do they make exceptions for Magnum photographers? 

In my case, I was threatened even as I took photos of mannequins in a shop window, while standing on the sidewalk. “C’est INTERDIT!” (It is forbidden) someone from inside the shop rushed out and yelled. She told me I might sell my photos to “les Chinois”, who would then make cheap copies of the French creations. I find this insulting to the Chinese, who are perfectly capable of coming up with their own unique fashions. It also implies that everyone “else” is making money at the expense of the French, including me. In fact, I would have gladly contributed to the French economy, if they kept their stores open. I needed to replace some broken camera equipment and spent my last Sunday in Paris going from one closed camera store to another, then hoping to find at least a lens filter at FNAC, but was told they didn’t stock the size I needed (for a standard Canon lens)…ever.

But I digress: back to the first photo. My friend’s concern says this to me. In a city like Paris, a man should be able to meet his mistress in broad daylight, at a café on a quiet side street, near Montparnasse. He should be so relaxed that he could sit back in his chair with his ankles crossed as he slips his right hand under her derriere. She should be able to wear a little black dress, fishnet stockings, stiletto sandals and a matching black leather purse. She should feel free to wrap her left arm around his shoulders and hold his neck in the palm of her right hand while they kiss, for at least 5 minutes. And, in the ultimate gesture of tenderness, he should be able to take his left hand to the underside of her upper right arm, which is rarely seen by the sun, and touch its soft skin. I have to admit, this is romantic and maybe he's right.

A picture is more than a document about one individual or one moment- it becomes a medium for discovery and conversation. It is a reflection of time and place in a broader sense, where we can see ourselves through universal themes such as childhood, work, war, love, and everything else we collectively care about. We don’t actually know anything about these two people from this photograph. What we see reveals our individual points of view.  For example, my friend viewed the entire “story” from a male perspective, imagining the plight of the man, if he were to get caught in an affair. Where did his idea that this was an illicit meeting come from? Is it that most married women don’t go out to meet their husbands for a coffee in the middle of the day while dressed so seductively? We don’t know the true story. This scene might not even be real- they could be actors being filmed from somewhere else in the distance. Photographs are not to be trusted.